Mar 302015

My readers will now and then offer comments on my recipes, but no one is more exacting than Victor Hazan, husband of and collaborator with the late Marcella Hazan and indeed himself a very fine cook. Here is a message he sent me about my Beef and Guinness Stew recipe, which I offered in my Zester Daily column for St. Patrick’s Day:

beef and Guinness stew ingredients

Ingredients for my Beef & Guinness Stew — sans peas. Credit: ©Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

 I followed it more or less scrupulously, save for some things an Italian cook wouldn’t go for, e.g. boiled potatoes served with their skins on. Che barbarità! I peeled and quartered them and threw them in with the meat after it had cooked an hour and a half. I very much liked doing the vegetables separately. To the carrots and turnips, I added parsnips, cipolline, and cardoon. I had no fresh peas, and I don’t use frozen ones, another barbarità. I cooked the stew for close to three hours, at the gentlest of simmers, on the stovetop. Superb! Grazie mille.

Dreaming of fresh baby peas…. real ones iatCampo dei Fiori market, Rome. Credit: @ Paolo Destefanis,

The fresh baby peas of my dreams…. at Campo dei Fiori market, Rome. Credit: © Paolo Destefanis,

If you’ve tried the stew following my recommendations faithfully, I have no doubt you found it astonishingly good. While I’m all for the cipolline and cardoon (I might find the parnsips a bit of sweet root vegetable overkill if used in addition to the carrots), I couldn’t disagree more about the skins on the potatoes. I like their earthy character, and besides, peel them away and you’ll take off the most nutritious part of the spud (B vitamins, calcium, and fiber). As for recommending frozen “petite” peas if you can’t get your hands on fresh ones—meaning peas eaten the same day they’re picked (after just a few hours, their sugars start converting to starch and they’re useless), fresh peas are elusive even when they are in season for those of us with our own gardens as much as for anyone else (it’s the one vegetable that refuses to thrive in my soil). Finding such peas in March would require nothing short of a divine intervention in my part of the world (the Irish, for their part, don’t have peas to add to their stews in March, either). Frozen baby peas can be a perfectly respectable substitute as long as they are not overcooked (see my recipe). After some back and forth about this, Victor conceded that even Marcella added frozen peas to a stew now and then.

With the world in such a sorry state, it does the heart good to have disagreements with friends about such relatively lighthearted matters — and to find that peace can be reached so easily and in good fun.

A note about my wallpaper: Because my garden is still covered in snow today, despite the official arrival of Spring, I have decided to keep the beautiful persimmons in the snow background for now. I’m so lucky to have the use of such exquisite, painterly images thanks to the generosity of my book photographer and friend, Paolo Destefanis. I’m finding it hard to part with this photograph in particular.

Mar 192015
Michael LaPlaca's Fritters. Credit ©Michael LaPlaca/aWeekinUmbriaCooks

Michael LaPlaca surprised me with these sweet rice “frittelle.” Credit ©Michael LaPlaca/aWeekinUmbriaCooks

Just two days after the American Irish whoop it up on St. Patrick’s day, Lenten eating restrictions are lifted once again for the Italians to celebrate Father’s Day, the Feast of Saint Joseph (Festa di San Giuseppe). The foster father of Jesus, symbolic breadwinner, protector of Mary, patron saint of families, orphans, unwed mothers, and the indigent is reverenced with an orgy of eating, drinking—and most importantly, sweet gorging.  Joseph is by happenstance also the patron saint of pastry cooks.

My grandfather was named Giuseppe, so this day held special meaning for us. Like other Italians, we celebrated with treats made only for this day, typically bigné (fried eclair with filled with pastry cream), zeppole and a myriad of other fried pastries. The most significant of these were always the frittelle di San Giuseppe, sweet rice fritters.

Grandfather Giuseppe della Croce c. 1908

Grandfather Giuseppe della Croce c. 1908

Of course, there are endless variations throughout the southern Italian regions, particularly in Puglia, Sicily, Abruzzo and Campania, where the tradition of frittelle di San Giuseppe is strongest, but my grandmother’s were based on a sweet rice dough and redolent with aromatics and vanilla. I hadn’t eaten them for years when my friend, Michael LaPlaca, surprised me on a recent visit to his house with a platter piled high with frittelle di carnevale “carnival sweets.” Even though they were studded with raisins, they smelled and tasted so much like my grandmother’s fritters that we whipped up a batch of them today.

In the lore of my grandmother’s native Bari, eating  frittelle on this day is thought to bring happiness, so in an immigrant family with eleven children, they were made — and eaten — in large quantities. We modern people worry a lot about fried foods and too many desserts, but go ahead and chase those leftovers of my superb Irish beef and Guinness stew with some of these sweet mouthfuls and make yourself happy, too, on St. Joseph’s Day.

Go make yourself some frittelle. ©Michael LaPlaca/aWeekinUmbria

Today’s “frittelle” for St. Joseph. ©Michael LaPlaca/aWeekinUmbriaCooks

Michael LaPlaca’s Sweet Rice Fritters

The inspiration for these frittelle comes from a little pastry shop in Perugia near Tre Archi, a short drive from my friend Michael’s palazzo in Bettona. “The first one was so good that I had to have another and ended up taking the last three home,” he told me. “I asked the owner if I could possibly get the recipe and he told me to come in when his mother was there.” Michael went back on the appointed day and spoke with the signora. While she gladly told him how she made them, the “recipe” was predictably sketchy. “Make the rice the night before and put it in the refrigerator. Then add sugar, flour, raisins, and one egg,” is all she said. Not to be deterred, he went home and experimented until he got them just right. These are delicious, a proper offering to St. Joseph, or any Joseph, or just a delicious treat for anyone, anytime, as far as I’m concerned. As every baker knows, it is always best to weigh rather than measure out ingredients, like the Europeans do, thus the quantities called for are stated in grams.

200 grams arborio rice cooked in 2-1/2 cups salted water

50 grams granulated white sugar

up to 100 grams all-purpose unbleached white flour

1 teaspoon vanilla

100 grams raisins or sultanas (dry weight), soaked in vin santo or dry sherry

1 medium egg, lightly beaten

peanut oil for deep-frying

1/2 cup flour for dredging

For the coating:

1/2 cup granulated white sugar

1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon


1. Several hours or the day before you plan to make the frittelle, combine the rice, the water, and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Cover tightly and cook over medium-low heat until all the water is absorbed and the rice is tender but not overcooked. If necessary, add a little more hot water and replace the cover. When it is done, cool thoroughly or refrigerate it overnight.

2. Before you begin to make the frittelle, bring the rice to room temperature. In the meantime, soak the raisins or sultanas in the liquor. When they are plump, squeeze out excess liquor and strain.

3. Put the cooled rice in an ample mixing bowl. Mix in the 50 grams sugar, vanilla, egg, drained raisins or sultanas, and enough of the flour to form a mixture that holds together but is neither runny nor too sticky.

4. Take two shallow soup bowls. Fill one with a cup of flour and the other with 1/2 cup of white sugar into which you have blended the cinnamon.

5. Select a deep pot for frying to prevent oil from splattering. Pour enough oil to reach 3 inches up the sides of the pan and set the flame on medium heat.

6. Set a baking sheet on your work space. Line a second baking sheet with paper towels and place it next to the stove. Select a large serving platter and set it aside.

7. Form the frittelle by scooping up a rounded teaspoon of the mixture at a time and with the help of a second teaspoon, form it into a ball (the dough is too sticky to use your hands for shape it). Transfer each formed ball to the unlined baking sheet until you have formed them all. Working with only as many as you can fry at a time, dredge the balls in the flour. (Keep in mind that if the rice balls are are dredged in flour and left to sit for even few minutes, the coating will become soggy and the frittelle will not be as crisp as they should be.)

8. When the oil is hot enough to make a rice ball sizzle upon contact, slip several rice balls in at a time. Do not crowd the skillet. There should be enough room around each to allow quick and even cooking. Fry the rice balls, turning them once, until cooked through and nicely browned on both sides, 5-7 minutes. If longer, they’ll be something for San Pietro, says Michael. Using a wire skimmer or “spider,” lift out the fritters one at a time and transfer to the other baking sheet lined with paper towels to drain.

9. While the fritters are still hot, roll them in the cinnamon-sugar mixture a few at a time, coating them well before they cool. Transfer them to the serving platter. Repeat the process with the remaining fritters. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Questions? Please ask!


Mar 152015
The Art of the Stew, Irish Style — with Beef and Guinness

Hurry, go make yourself some “roasty” beef and Guinness stew. It might, just might, top its Italian counterpart. And if you don’t get around to it for St. Patrick’s Day, no need to suffer — make it any old time! My story, with recipe, in Zester Daily here .  

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A couple of weeks ago, Linda Pelaccio, a producer and host at Heritage Radio Network, asked if I would talk to her about that very question. It’s the subject of my last book, Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul, and something that’s on my mind more than ever as I travel around Italy these days. Seems it’s going the way of America with its fast food habits and global food tastes, while we’re going the way of Italy, yearning to farm, recapture heritage seeds, and make artisan foods. So the other day, I made my way to the radio station launched by Patrick Martins, founder of […more…]

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Polenta: The Long and the Short of It, with Inspiration from Marcella

Nearly twenty-five years ago I wrote an article for Cook’s magazine titled “Polenta: To Stir With Love.” In it, I advocated the traditional method for stirring the cornmeal and water continually as it simmers on the stove for lump-free and silky results, just as I had watched my mother and countless cooks in Italy’s polenta-loving regions do. Although most cornmeal package directions call for simmering it for some 45 minutes, many Italian cooks believe that it should be cooked for at least an hour or even longer, to improve its creaminess and render it more digestible. (Where the stirring was once done […more…]

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Still Time Left for Making the Fruitcake You Can Love!

True English fruitcake—sumptuous, evocative, intoxicating— is something you can love. Here is a recipe dedicated to you for Christmas—especially to my friends who think they hate fruitcake. It’s a revelation: continue reading here for the recipe and story.

Dec 012014
A New Pasta is Born

A new spaghetti so revolutionary in the pasta universe that it could be likened to the discovery of a new planet. Pasta Rapida 90” is an artisan spaghetti conceived to cook in 90 seconds to commemorate the maker’s 90-year anniversary, and to “end the controversy between Futurism and spaghetti.” Read all about it here.